External Factors in the Perception of Artwork

I have written a number of posts about how the presentation of artwork can affect the viewer’s perception of that art. The other day I ran across a fantastic video that speaks to the same issue as it relates to food. “Tasteology” is a series of four videos that address the issue of why food tastes the way it does. The first three episodes focus on the source of the raw ingredients, how they are prepared, and how they are stored. The final episode, found below, examines how the presentation and environment in which food is eaten affects our perception of its flavor and textures. From the room and the plating to the ambient sounds and lighting, this video speaks to an issue that all artists should think more about when considering how to present their work. I loved it!

Acknowledging Influence in Your Art

Teju Cole is a photographer, author, teacher, art historian, and critic. He is one of today’s  most complex, thoughtful and articulate critics of photography, and I always enjoy the articles he writes for the New York Times Magazine.  They are hugely thought-provoking. He recently published a book, Known and Strange Things, which was reviewed by Claudia Rankine in the Sunday New York Times Book Review in August.

In the review, Rankine refers to a section in which Cole has a conversation with writer and critic Aleksandar Hemon. Rankin writes: “Hemon is … interested in what happens when influences are constantly shaping and reshaping the imagination. For Cole, visual artists, especially painters, are least affected by that anxiety of influence and “know that everything is a combination of what’s observed, what’s imagined, what’s overheard and what’s been done before.” He argues that to acknowledge influence is to let go of notions of “literal records of reality” and cultural or racial ownership of content. All Cole wants is to be “dragged down into a space of narrative that I haven’t been in before.””

I love that Cole embraces the notion of artists being influenced by external forces. I know so many artists who shy away from, if not openly fear, the idea that their work might be influenced by someone or something else. Young artists in particular, but older artists, too, often want their work to be born only from themselves. They actively refuse to read about others, to go to museums, to expose themselves to anything outside of the narrow parameters of their own lives as they have lived them to date.

It is deluded to think that we can go through this life not being influenced by something other than ourselves. We don’t live in a vacuum, even when we try to. I don’t think it matters what our influences are as artists. What matters far more is what we do with the influences we have. Do we take that information and create something unique out of it? Or do we use it to rehash what others have already said and done before? I think that the prospect of the latter is what makes people fearful. But if you use that which influences you to create something fresh and new, something that makes people like Cole sit up, pay attention, and say “I haven’t seen that before.”, then there is no reason to fear your influences.

Reliving Cultural Moments That Change Your Life

In 2015, the New York Times ran a series of articles written by a variety of people that addressed the following question:

“What cultural work or encounter do you wish you could experience again for the first time?”

The authors wrote about concerts, books and films that had had a profound impact on them, each of which they wished they could experience again for the first time. For me, there have been two such cultural experiences, one of which I blogged about in 2014:

Thoughts on the Aesthetic Experience

The other experience took place during a visit to New York City in the mid-1970’s. I decided one day to visit the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in order to see in person some of the artworks that I had studied in art history classes in college. I had no particular agenda for this visit, no works that I specifically wanted to see. After having taken in the art on the first two floors, I started up the flight of stairs that would take me to the next level. Doing so meant going up a short flight of stairs, turning 90˚ to the right, ascending another short flight, then turning another 90˚ to take the final steps up to the third floor. As I ascended that last section, I became aware that a large painting was coming into view with each step I climbed. It was enormous, it was black and white, it was riveting.

It was Picasso’s “Guernica”.guernica_all-1

Although I had seen this painting in reproduction many times before, I was stunned when encountering it in person. It is one thing to see a photograph of an artwork in a book, or as a projection or screen image, and quite another to experience it in real life. Nothing had prepared me for the violence, the authority, the command of this painting.

I stood there at the top of the stairs, unable to move, not knowing where to begin or even what to think. It was as if all thought had been stripped from my brain, leaving a blank slate behind. I can’t say exactly how long I stayed there examining and thinking about the painting, but I do know that it was a good long time. I left MOMA without having looked at anything else.

I was aware that “Guernica” was going to be sent back to Spain eventually (it was, in 1981), and that this was probably the only time that I would be able to see it in person. So I drank it in while I could, all the while wondering how a painting could evoke such a visceral response in me.

Looking back, I understand that my reaction arose from a combination of things: the way the painting came slowly into view as I ascended the stairs, the powerful content of it, the fact that it was in black, gray & white, the abstract method used to paint it, the relationship of the figures to each other, and my total lack of expectation about what I was going to see as I climbed those steps.

I think of that day often, as it was the first time that I realized how potent and personal art could be, and wish I could see “Guernica” for the first time again.